Thursday 27 November 2008

The PAS and its former Fifth Aim

In 2003 the aims and objectives of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (operating since 1997) were formalized. There were just five of them. The last was
To define the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to access the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.
Just a few years later, on page 9 of the 2005/6 annual report it was announced bluntly “The final aim […] has been achieved”. This was indeed a surprising statement if one regards just one of the several purposes of the PAS is to record the many items being deliberately and with pre-meditation taken from the archaeological record weekly by several thousand artefact hunters year by year. The PAS has clearly not been achieving full mitigation of the erosion caused by this single cause of the significant long term depletion of the British archaeological record. It also seems to me that it has a very long way to go in doing so. Furthermore it is clear that meeting this need would be a very costly exercise, so the curious may have wondered where the resources to put this in practice were emvisaged. On the announcement of the news that these resources had been identified, we all looked forward to the release of the details.

They never came. Whatever the PAS had decided about these costs and how they were likely to be met was kept out of the public domain.

The PAS however had not achieved their fifth aim. They had not assessed the longer term costs of a scheme for recording the thousands of individual pieces of archaeological evidence removed annually to scattered ephemeral personal portable antiquity collections by British artefact hunters. They never did let on where it was they identified the source of the considerable amounts of money needed to do the job properly – in other words the PAS did they reveal on whom they wished to unload the costs of legitimizing and coping with the erosive hobby of a minority - or why they should foot the bill.

More recently a review was commissioned to look at the same problem. The publication of the results of the review process identified the source of the funding to keep the Scheme operating more or less at the same level. Basically in addition to central funds, it requires the local partners each to give to the financing of the Scheme twice as much money as before. A few limply-phrased words about ”partnership” and so on are intended to convince local authorities of the necessity of doing this (at the expense of other local needs of course).

The point is however that current policies concerning artefact hunting and collecting in England and Wales do not need a PAS that is standing still, one that is merely treading water to create the impression that one day the problem of the erosion of the British archaeological record due to artefact hunting, collecting and commerce can be fully resolved. We need a PAS which is going to reach all those thousands of finds that are annually being removed from the archaeological record by artefact collectors and get reliable archaeologically-usable information from them. That’s going to cost a lot more than adding another few percent on a local authority’s already slim culture budget. The big question though is why? Why should everybody be forking out to support the hobby of an erosive minority?

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